I have a confession to make. I have not been as enamored of Ta-Nehisi Coates and his writing on race as some white people, particularly liberals, are. In fact, recently, I’ve discovered that I’m not alone in thinking that Coates’s views on race are too emotional, too dark, too relentlessly pessimistic. As one friend wrote in an email, “I tend not to agree with Coates because the premise of everything he writes is all white people in this country are evil and just look at the history of America to prove it. I tend to be a lot less cynical than that.”
When it comes to race and the United States, I am Martin Luther King Jr. to Coates’s Malcolm X. But ever since the killing of Trayvon Martin in 2012 and the ensuing grim roll call of black lives felled by law enforcement and wannabe cops and others who simply felt empowered, my views on race and our nation have moved steadily closer to Coates’s. With “The First White President,” Coates’s epic examination of and explanation for President Trump’s victory last November in the Atlantic magazine, there no longer is any daylight between me and the provocative chronicler of America’s racial divide.
In paragraph after paragraph, Coates articulates what has roiled my heart and mind since election night. He lays out with precision and data what I knew in my bones. White people, generally speaking, were not and are not going to slip into their impending status as “the new minority” without a fight — a fight successfully waged by a man who ran the most racist, xenophobic, misogynistic campaign for president in memory. And that was after spending years questioning the legitimacy of his predecessor, Barack Obama, by peddling the racist birther lie that the nation’s first African American president wasn’t born in the United States.
“In 2016, Trump enjoyed majority or plurality support among every economic branch of whites,” Coates writes, blowing up the fallacy that the key to Trump’s support is the “white working class.” Trump also won white voters with and without a college degree. He won both white men (63 percent) and women (53 percent) against Democratic former secretary of state Hillary Clinton, the first female presidential nominee of a political party. And Trump won all age groups of whites.
“Certainly not every Trump voter is a white supremacist, just as not every white person in the Jim Crow South was a white supremacist,” Coates notes. “But every Trump voter felt it acceptable to hand the fate of the country over to one.” Leave aside Trump’s appalling and unpresidential pronouncements during the campaign. What he said on Aug. 15 in reaction to the racist rally in Charlottesville days earlier that resulted in the killing of Heather Heyer and again last week stripped him of the benefit of the doubt of being a white supremacist and the moral authority required to lead this diverse nation.
“I think there’s blame on both sides. And I have no doubt about it,” Trump said in the gilded lobby of his eponymous Manhattan tower. When he was challenged on equating the peaceful protesters with the white supremacists, Trump thundered, “Not all of those people were neo Nazis, believe me. Not all of those people were white supremacists, by any stretch.” He added later, “You had some very bad people in that group. But you also had people that were very fine people on both sides.”
After the bipartisan slaps at his morally reprehensible “both sides” remarks, you’d think that Trump learned that there are lines a president of the United States should know not to cross. Alas, no. Sen. Tim Scott (S.C.), the only black Republican in the Senate, met with Trump on Sept. 13 in the Oval Office. They discussed the horror of Charlottesville and Trump’s response, but the president clearly learned nothing. Here’s what he told a gaggle of reporters aboard Air Force One.
[Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.) and I] had a great talk yesterday. I think especially in light of the advent of Antifa, if you look at what’s going on there. You have some pretty bad dudes on the other side also, and essentially that’s what I said. Now because of what’s happened since then with Antifa, when you look at really what’s happened since Charlottesville, a lot of people are saying, and people have actually written, ‘Gee, Trump may have a point.’ I said there’s some very bad people on the other side also.
Trump doesn’t have a point. Never did. Turning the focus on Antifa — a claque of anarchists I’d never heard of until Charlottesville — will not erase the smiley face Trump continually puts on white supremacy. That he insists on doing so makes him a pretty “bad dude,” among the worst to ever lead this nation.
“Trump moved racism from the euphemistic and plausibly deniable,” Coates writes about Trump’s tactics during the campaign, “to the overt and freely claimed.” A strategy he shamefully continues in the White House. “To Trump, whiteness is neither notional nor symbolic but is the very core of his power.” For those who question whether white supremacy is the foundation of the Trump presidency, Coates gets to the heart of the matter in two standout paragraphs, one at the top and the other at the bottom of his essay.
Trump is the first president to have served in no public capacity before ascending to his perch. But more telling, Trump is also the first president to have publicly affirmed that his daughter is a “piece of ass.” The mind seizes trying to imagine a black man extolling the virtues of sexual assault on tape (“When you’re a star, they let you do it”), fending off multiple accusations of such assaults, immersed in multiple lawsuits for allegedly fraudulent business dealings, exhorting his followers to violence, and then strolling into the White House. But that is the point of white supremacy—to ensure that that which all others achieve with maximal effort, white people (particularly white men) achieve with minimal qualification. …And so the most powerful country in the world has handed over all its affairs—the prosperity of its entire economy; the security of its 300 million citizens; the purity of its water, the viability of its air, the safety of its food; the future of its vast system of education; the soundness of its national highways, airways, and railways; the apocalyptic potential of its nuclear arsenal—to a carnival barker who introduced the phrase grab ’em by the [p—y] into the national lexicon. It is as if the white tribe united in demonstration to say, “If a black man can be president, then any white man—no matter how fallen—can be president.”
After years of an expansive view of America and what it means to be American and pursue the American dream, the president of the United States is determined to carry the water of those who believe this nation is a white nation for white people. What Coates has done is shine a light on all of it simply by pointing out what has happened and is happening. He has given voice to what African Americans (and those with a moral compass) have felt in Trump’s America. It’s not pretty. It’s uncomfortable to face. The “first white president” is a “bad dude.” And Coates is just the person to force us to face it.
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